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World’s most destructive climate disasters in 2020 includes Australia fires

Australia’s devastating Black Summer bushfires have been included in a list of the world’s most expensive disasters.

A new report by Christian Aid, Counting the cost 2020: a year of climate breakdown identifies 15 of the most destructive climate disasters of the year.

Nine of these events have caused damage worth at least $5 billion each and this includes Australia’s bushfires.

The report notes that financial costs are usually higher in more wealthy countries because they have more valuable property but despite this some poorer countries are still featured in the top 10.

South Sudan, for example, experienced one of its worst floods on record, which killed 138 people and destroyed the year’s crops.

Six of the 10 most costly events took place in Asia, and five of them were associated with an unusually rainy monsoon.

Some events unfolded over months, including the floods in China and India, which had an estimated cost of $32 billion and $10 billion respectively.

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There were also smaller disasters including a heatwave in the Russian territory of Siberia, floods in South Sudan, fires in South America, typhoons in Philippines and floods in Vietnam.

“Whether it be floods in Asia, locusts in Africa or storms in Europe and the Americas, climate change has continued to rage in 2020,” report author Dr Kat Kramer and Christian Aid climate policy lead said.

“It is vital that 2021 ushers in a new era of activity to turn this tide.”

University of Melbourne climate science lecturer Dr Andrew King said there was evidence that human-caused climate change had contributed to the severity of some severe weather events, particularly heatwaves and wildfires.

“Within this challenging landscape there is an opportunity to change direction and work towards a greener future, so we can limit global warming in line with the Paris Agreement, and avoid some of the most damaging consequences of climate change that we project under continued high greenhouse gas emissions.”

1. HURRICANES, UNITED STATES

This year’s Atlantic hurricane season was record-breaking, with 30 named storms that caused at least 400 deaths, at a combined cost of $US41 billion.

Hurricane Eta, which was one of nine storms named from Greek alphabet after other names were exhausted, killed 153 people in Central America, most of them in Honduras and Guatemala.

RELATED: Grim outlook for Australia’s climate

In the US, hurricanes Laura and Sally caused the most damage. Both of them affected the state of Louisiana, which was struck by five named storms throughout the season, setting a new record. Many of those storms made landfall only a few weeks apart.

There has been an increase in the number of named storms in the Atlantic basin since 1980 and at least nine of the storms this year experienced “rapid intensification”, a phenomenon by which tropical cyclones acquire high wind speeds in a short period of time.

Estimated cost: $US41 billion

2. FLOODS, CHINA

China experienced intense floods starting in June that impacted more than 35 million people, and left at least 278 dead or missing.

Some of the most affected areas were around the densely populated Yangtze river basin, including the provinces of Sichuan and Guizhou, and the city of Chongqing, where more than 30 million people live.

There are projections that climate change will see a higher proportion of the country’s rain falling as concentrated downpours, with a 2016 study finding that China was the country with the highest risk of floods in the world.

Estimated cost: $US32 billion

3. FIRES, UNITED STATES

The 2020 fire season between July and November on the west coast of the US was one of the most destructive on record.

Dozens of wildfires across California, Colorado, Arizona, Washington and Oregon burned more than eight million acres of land.

About half of the burnt area is within the borders of California, setting a new record for the state. At least 42 people were killed.

The smoke from the fires, containing dangerous particulate matter and ozone, caused a surge in hospital admissions in the region. It also affected neighbouring states and Canada.

Temperatures in the region have been increasing over the last century and in August, when the fires were at their most intense, the region was experiencing a record-breaking heatwave.

In Death Valley, a temperature of 54.4C was recorded – provisionally the hottest temperature ever on record.

Estimated cost: $US20 billion

4. CYCLONE AMPHAN, BAY OF BENGAL

With sustained wind speeds of 270km/h, Cyclone Amphan was one of the strongest storms on record in the Bay of Bengal, India, and also the most costly this year.

At least 128 people were killed and the cyclone also caused great damage in cities like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan.

Some studies have found the strength of cyclones affecting the countries bordering the North Indian Ocean has been increasing.

A warmer atmosphere can also drive more extreme rainfall during cyclones that increase the threat of flooding.

Global sea levels have already increased about 23cm and this has dramatically increased the distance that storm surges can reach.

India, which is currently the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, is one of the few countries that has set targets to reduce carbon emissions that are “compatible” with keeping the planet’s temperature increase below 2C compared to pre-industrial times, according to Climate Action Tracker.

Estimated cost: $US13 billion

5. FLOODS, INDIA

The monsoon season brought extreme rainfall to India this year, causing floods and landslides that caused at least 2,067 deaths between June and October.

In Kerala, a single landslide in a tea plantation killed 49 people, and in Assam, the floods affected more than 60,000 between May and October, with 149 deaths.

The city of Hyderabad, where almost 10 million people live, saw a record rainfall of 29.8cm in 24 hours – almost 6cm more than the previous record. The floods submerged cars and houses, killing at least 50 people.

This is the second consecutive year where India experienced abnormally high rainfalls during the monsoon season.

Over the last 65 years, the country has seen a three-fold increase in extreme rain events.

Estimated cost: $US10 billion

6. LOCUST SWARMS, EAST AFRICA

During the first few months of 2020, many countries in East Africa such as Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, experienced a locust invasion following an unusual rainy season at the end of 2019.

The locust swarms attacked vast areas of the region, destroying crops, trees and pastures.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), this was the worst outbreak in 25 years for the Horn of Africa and in 70 years for Kenya.

The World Bank estimated losses could amount to $US8.5 billion due to crop losses and other “economic, human, and environmental impacts”.

Scientists predict that the conditions for more flooding, cyclones and pests could be more frequent as the planet warms.

Estimated cost: $US8.5 billion

6. FLOODS, JAPAN

Extreme rains in July on the island of Kyushu during the region’s rainy season, caused 82 fatalities.

The record-breaking intensity of the rains caused floods and landslides, with more than 250,000 people having to be evacuated. At least 14 people were killed when a care home was flooded.

In some parts of the island, rainfall exceeded 410mm in 24 hours.

Several cities, such as Kuma and Kanoya, saw record downpours, exceeding 80 and 100mm of rain in just one hour, respectively.

Japan’s rainfall pattern has been changing over the last decades, according to a recent report by Japan’s Meteorological Agency.

There are now more days with heavy rain and fewer days with light rain. Extreme downpours are becoming more common.

Estimated cost: $US 8.5 billion

8. WIND STORMS, EUROPE

Europe was hit by several windstorms (or extratropical cyclones) in February and October. The two with the highest costs were Ciara and Alex, whose combined damage amounts to more than $US5.9 billion.

Ciara hit the UK and Ireland in early February, continuing to move east over several weeks. It caused 14 fatalities in eight countries and had an estimated cost of $US2.7 billion.

Floods caused by Alex in France and Italy killed 16 people in October and destroyed about $US3.2 billion in infrastructure.

The Italian region of Piedmont experienced its highest rainfall since 1958, with one station recording 630mm of rain in 24 hours.

Estimated cost: $US5.9 billion

9. BUSHFIRES, AUSTRALIA

The Black Summer bushfires began at the end of 2019 and destroyed between 24 to 40 million hectares of bushland, destroying buildings, killing more than a billion wild animals and causing at least 34 deaths.

Smoke blanketed the country’s biggest cities including Sydney and Canberra and the report said the cost of smoke-related deaths alone was estimated at $1.4 billion.

Insured costs have been estimated at $US3.6 billion, although other estimates have put the total costs as high as $100 billion (US$70 billion).

Estimated damage: $US5 billion

RELATED: Black Summer fires signal start of new ‘ice age’

10. FLOODS, PAKISTAN

Heavy rains during the monsoon caused 410 deaths in Pakistan and saw floods and landslides cause an estimated $US1.5 billion in damage.

In the Sindh province, extreme rainfall events took place almost back-to-back during July and August, while in Karachi, the downpours were the most intense on record since 1931.

Scientists note that as the planet warms, the total monsoon rain will increase, though some areas will receive less rainfall due to changes in wind patterns.

This means that heavy rainfall events such as those seen in Pakistan this year will likely become more frequent.

Estimated cost: $1.5 billion

charis.chang@news.com.au | @charischang2

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